The impending launch of Windows Phone 7 handsets before Christmas period represents another rich option for Australian mobile application and game developers. But what is it like developing for the new Microsoft platform?
Australian developers from Xamling and Fairfax discussed their experience developing on the new platform and the implications for Aussie developers on the sidelines of Microsoft’s Tech.Ed conference on the Gold Coast this year.
Xamling is a startup company, fronted by brothers Jordan (lead developer) and Alex (lead designer) Knight. Xamling’s first Windows Phone 7 project was to develop Telstra’s flagship application The TelstraOne hub — a news, sports, weather and application portal — that will be featured on Windows Phone 7 handsets obtained through Telstra.
Fairfax has an application in development on the handset for real estate website Domain — one of the publishers’ many websites. The project is headed by Fairfax Classifieds technology director, Matthew Faries. Several of Fairfax’s sites are based on Microsoft’s .NET development platform.
Xamling and Fairfax were one of the first few Australian developers to get their mitts on the handset, so what was their experience like?
“It was really good,” said Jordan Knight. “We were basically full Silverlight developers before the phone came. When it came out we were like, ‘we have this new platform, this new target’ so we jumped on there and tried to transfer our skills on to it.”
“We didn’t actually have to do any transfer — we just opened up the phone project in the studio and started coding straight away,” the developer added. “There was basically very little difference for us — obviously aside from the smaller screen. We didn’t have to learn a whole heap of new things to get onto to the platform.”
“It wasn’t difficult, it was an interesting thing to play around with and something different,” he said. “As far as developing goes, we don’t have a lot of Silverlight-specific development and we gained a few tips and tricks that we learnt along the way as well. Having that base C# .NET and our development experience made it very easy to pick up that stuff.”
So why did the developers jump at the chance to develop on the Windows platform?
“We looked at taking a bit of space in the mobile territory and aligning ourselves with some of the platforms we see as having good potential in the future,” said Faries. “A lot of our traffic online will be mobile-based in the next couple of years so we are looking at that. Up to 50 percent of searches will be done on a mobile device and not just a web device.”
With Android and Apple already having a strong foothold in the development community, Microsoft is starting from behind to bring its developer eco-system up to the same size. But Faries said he would be surprised if the Microsoft side of things didn’t catch up — because of what he said was the ease of use of the tools.
Knight and Fairies both mentioned that they did not have to invest massive amounts of time in developing their respective applications.
“From our point of view to get something done like that in two weeks is quite is quite impressive,” said Faries. “We had existing back end data searches … we didn’t necessarily reuse it completely. It was just taking stuff that we had already written and re-factoring … some of the stuff we had on the website is quite old and we didn’t want to use it exactly.”
Knight said that the Hub project only took a few weeks. “For me it’s all about how easy it is to do … I’m a developer and I won’t take on a project if I can’t get the maximum benefit out of it — so it has to be quick and fast and relatively pain free to do,” he said. “So now we have Silverlight on the phone.”
Knight said that his company was constantly thinking about new applications. “It’s a portable location device with data, so it opens up a whole new breed of applications we are interested in,” he said. He also mentioned that the platform was ideal for small teams such as Xamling: “There are only a few of us. The Silverlight platform really enables a really small team like ours to take on projects than what is larger than what we would have.”
The technology is “data binding” — developers can drag can drag and drop onto the screen and it builds templates without writing code. Also, developers don’t have to worry about details such as how many pixels are between buttons — it’s all consistent.
Faries’ team did not come across any major issues developing for the new platform “It was just a different way of thinking — the user interface is, I guess, a different experience to what you get on a website or on another phone,” he said. “Flipping around and panorama was a bit to get your head around — just to understand where they are coming from.”
Every hot new device on the market is going to draw attention like bees to a honey pot. And unauthorised upgrades will inevitably follow — as the wave of hacks for Android handsets and iPhones has proven. But Microsoft will not acknowledge that inevitable path for Windows Phone 7.
“We are not talking about that. That is a no comment. All applications that go up to marketplace have authentic code,” said Microsoft evangelist Dave Glover.
Faries divulged that balanced access to the handset was a positive, for development and the team. “They restrict to the hardware and restrict access to the applications so everyone is taking the same model in terms of philosophy but different implementations,” he said. “It is not a matter of being open or closed in some respects — no one wants developers to come across and develop straight to the hardware because that is when bad stuff happens.”
With Windows Phone 6.5 long gone, Knight said that his application would not be possible on the older platform. “Say a platform like 6.5 and .NET framework — I think with 6.5 you wouldn’t be able to do the app we were doing,” he said.
Wednesday 2nd September Microsoft announced the release of the finalised version of the Windows Phone 7 operating system. Windows Phone 7 handsets are expected to hit Australia before Christmas.
Disclosure: Delimiter’s Jenna Pitcher attended Tech.Ed several weeks ago as a guest of Microsoft, with flights, accommodation and meals paid for